Why a symposium on living with limestone?
Land managers who work in karst areas need an adequate understanding of the implications of their actions on both the surface and subsurface components of karst; cave managers need to be well equipped to understand the implications for their caves of activities on the surface. ACKMA has come to provide a very useful forum for people who work in these two professions. But cave managers, park managers and scientists form only a tiny percentage of the people who live with limestone. Millions of the Earth's human inhabitants live in limestone areas. The aim of this symposium is to broaden our horizons, recognising that there are many interests involved with karst environments with whom ACKMA presently has relatively little contact. Many of these people potentially have much to offer ACKMA, while contact with ACKMA potentially offers benefits to them in return.
With these thoughts in mind we have invited a variety of people to address this symposium or to participate from the floor. So I am delighted to be able to welcome to this opening session of the 11th Australasian Conference on Cave and Karst Management a variety of people from various walks of life who may not previously have had much involvement with karst managers, and who may perhaps not even have recognised until relatively recently that karst was a significant issue in the exercise of their professional duties. The experienced cave and karst managers here will learn much from your presence here today, and hopefuly you will also leave with some new insights and contacts that will be of benefit.
So why does Living with Limestone warrant a meeting such as this? Because limestone, and some related rocks, give rise to some particular opportunities but also some particular difficulties. Limestone is special because it dissolves more easily than most other rocks. Because of this solubility, water erodes channels that extend down into the earth rather than flowing across it, as we are used to being the case. The distinctive landscapes that result are what we call karst:
- streams flow underground and drain in directions that often ignore the surface topography - and we can't see which direction they flow in;
- cave systems of various kinds develop;
- depressions, or sinkholes, form in the ground surface where water infiltrates downwards or where caves collapse;
- a wide range of intriguing surface and undergound landforms develop, and also highly specialised environments for plant and animal species.
One of those animal species is Homo sapiens. Karst areas have been developed for farming, communications, industry, forestry, mining - almost as many activities as humans have undertaken anywhere. The various show cave managers present among this audience are testimony to the fact that tourism can be a prominent part of the economy in karst areas, especially where caves have been developed for visitors. But equally, limestone rock is also an important resource in itself, for industry, agriculture, a variety of purposes. Living with Limestone is also about Living Together.
And while karst areas offer some special opportunities for humans, like tourism based on caves, living with limestone isn't always easy:
- water supplies can be difficult to get at if they are mostly underground;
- karst groundwater is easily polluted because it flows in what are effectively natural pipes, allowing pollutants to be distributed widely through a groundwater system in relatively rapid time;
- soils are vulnerable, and can be lost down into the caves and underground channels, sometimes slowly and insidiously and sometimes so rapidly as to cause collapse of the ground surface;
- conflict can arise between the different people trying to share the resources available in limestone country, and too often does.
The issues that arise in karst reveal in microcosm environmental issues generally.
So why a symposium on Living with Limestone? Because there are many values, many technical issues, many stakeholders, and generally far too little communication.
Equally, there is too great a focus on failure and too little focus on success. Our newspapers peddle the conflicts of Mt Etna, or Sellicks Hill, or Exit Cave, too often distorting and sensationalising in the quest for headlines and sales, but how often do they tell us that some of the largest limestone mining operations do not pose a threat to significant karst, as in Tasmania where the largest limestone quarry is essentially environmentally benign?
Politicians of different colours and levels may focus on conflict in our forests, and indulge in gratuitous labelling of those they see as their opponents, seeking to divide people into different sides so that one side can be claimed as a power base for themslves. But how often do they tell us how greenie cavers are working hand in hand with one of the state's biggest forestry companies and together they are getting things right at Mt Cripps and elsewhere?
It would seem that in the eyes of our newspapers and politicians there just aren't enough headlines and political speeches to be fashioned out of the in the hard work thats being done on the ground by so many people, or out of the opportunities different stakeholders have to help one another. The media of mass communication too often let us down. If those of us actually working in karst related fields are to continue to make progress we need to maintain and expand our dialogue with one another directly.
How many of our conflicts still arise because diferent stakeholders talk different languages? For instance, what is a cave?
- a karst hydrogeologist defines a cave as a solution cavity of sufficient diameter for turbulent flow of water to occur - about 5-15 mm in diameter or width (Ford and Williams 1989: 242);
- to a caver a cave is a cavity big enough to admit a human body;
- but to a limestone quarry worker these are just holes, not caves (if they are noticed at all) - for a hole in the quarry face to warrant description as a cave demands that it be something somewhat bigger;
- to the general public, a cave is probably something bigger still, preferably with stalactites and other speleothems perhaps, and with lights and steps rather than darkness and mud.
Each view is correct for the person who holds it: the hydrogeologist concerned about water flows to deeper caves or indications that such deeper systems exist; the caver seeking a place for his sport; the miner wanting clean limestone and minimum void space; or the family seeking a comfortable, safe and entertaining outing. You only have to think back to the Exit Cave Quarry controversy to remember conflicts based on this sort of thing.
If this Living with Limestone symposium works it won't be so much because people have come here to talk but because people have come here to listen. It won't be because people come to represent a cause but because people want to understand causes. Because people want to seek solutions.
As I drove Kevan Wilde back towards the airport the other day he commented that even in one particular part of his home country where the media would have us believe there is little sympathy for the environment, if you scratch anyone you will find they are green underneath. Its the same almost everywhere. Virtually everyone wants to do the right thing. But often people have different perspectives, different experiences. No matter what walk of life they come from, there is no-one in this room who wants to damage the environment and there is no-one in this room who wants to see people put out of jobs. That is a massive rock of common ground. We have to assume goodwill, not simply because it is usually the reality, but because if we dont make that assumption we're doomed before we start.
Today we will hear from and mingle with people from many different fields: cavers, scientists, limestone miners, conservationists, land managers, engineers, foresters, loggers, tourism operators, rural community representatives. We obviously won't resolve all differences of opinion or perspective today, but maybe we can start to understand each other a bit better and open up some useful new communication. Maybe we can become a little more understanding of alternative views and needs, and a little less inclined to pin labels on people that just mask the very real necessity to come to terms with genuine issues. Maybe there can be a beer or two shared later that might not otherwise have been shared. That would be a start.